How to use nunchi, a Korean 'superpower,' to achieve your New Year's resolutions

A new book stresses nunchi, a heightened form of emotional intelligence and social awareness.
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By Melissa Kim

If your New Year’s resolutions include being a better friend, advancing your career or cutting out digital distractions and genuinely connecting with the people around you, a new book says you might want to consider harnessing the power of your nunchi.

The Korean concept is a bit difficult to wrangle and define, as there is no direct English translation. But in her new book, “The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success,” Euny Hong explains nunchi (noon-chee) as “eye measure: the subtle art of gauging other people’s thoughts and feelings in order to build trust, harmony, and connection.”

This superpower can help you in any situation, the book says, whether it be landing that job or helping you win more friends. It's a heightened form of emotional intelligence and social awareness.

Hong explains that everyone possesses nunchi and emphasizes the concept as the power of the underdog. “There’s a Korean expression, nunchi is a secret weapon of the disadvantaged,” Hong told NBC News. “Nunchi is perfect for improving your life, and you can without any privileges or education. It’s better honed if you don’t have any of those things.”

On a practical level, it’s about plugging into your environment, whether at a party, the office, or among family, she said. “Nunchi means leaving your ego at the door. It’s the only way to figure out what is going on; it’s pragmatic."

The term is common in contemporary Korean pop culture. Numerous Korean pop songs reference nunchi, including Sam Kim’s “No nunchi (No sense),” featuring Crush, and TWICE’s hit, “Signal.” There are Korean children’s books that illustrate nunchi. It has also been referenced by almost every Korean mom on the planet.

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And nunchi is a power that can be applied universally. Hong draws upon distinct illustrations ranging from Korean folklore to David Brent’s character on “The Office.”

Here's how to harness the concept to be happier, healthier and more successful in the new year, according to the book.

Be more adept at listening

Hong emphasizes that a mastery of quietude is essential to plugging into your environment. “The quietness is so vital,” Hong said. Use the power of nunchi and develop your skills at being a better listener by being present, practicing mindfulness and actually focusing on the person speaking to you. Take off those headphones when checking out at the store and address the cashier. Turn your phone facedown at the dinner table. Tune out the workday notifications and requests in your head and practice being still and quiet.

Learn to be a more keen observer

Hong stresses the significance of speed when it comes to nunchi. In Korean, the concept is simply broken down as such: someone either has quick nunchi or just doesn’t have it. She offers examples of everyday situations in which you're constantly deploying and improving your nunchi. Quickly observing that a New York City subway car is empty on a relatively crowded train can save you from a malodorous ride.

Being observant can also help you in uncharted territory, she says. “In an unfamiliar environment, see what other people are doing and give them the benefit of the doubt: it’s likely that they’re doing it for a good reason,” she explains in the book.

Get ahead at work

Use the power of nunchi in ways that are both self-serving and for collective success. Reading between the lines and acting quickly lies at the core of the power of nunchi. Using your nunchi at a job interview can help you discern what type of candidate a company is seeking and how you fit in. Alternatively, if you’re a hiring manager, use your sense of nunchi by paying sharp attention to a potential candidate’s nonverbal expressions, such as avoiding eye contact with interviewers when discussing certain topics.

Become a more sensitive friend and family member

Perhaps nunchi is most often noticed when it is absent, Hong says. A friend with no nunchi may insist on ordering drinks for an acquaintance who is a recovering alcoholic. A narcissist with no nunchi pays little attention to something important a friend is telling you. Tap into your nunchi by being more sensitive and aware of which conversation topics to avoid to prevent igniting an argument with a particular family member or friend.

Really read a room

If you’re just arriving to an office meeting or a party, nunchi has a practical approach: ““First, notice the overall room feeling. Where is the room temperature? Everyone else has already been there before you. Do they look nervous?” If so, this may not be the time to blurt out a joke. While most may just talk to their friends, the nunchi ninja takes in the entire room. “Every room has its own atmosphere, has its own feeling, nunchi is picking up this bunegi [Korean word for environment] of the whole room like a living organism or a beehive,” Hong said.

Nunchi can help you improve many aspects of life and has the potential to play a huge role in overall happiness and success. “Your observation and adaptability will make you stronger,” Hong emphasizes in the book.